Tomorrow the Killing by Daniel Polansky

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Raymond Chandler, considered one of the greatest crime writers ever, was not always considered as such. He was once quoted as saying about his critics,

The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time.

I think that quote may bear some relevance to Daniel Polansky when I finish this review.

Polansky’s first novel, Low Town to those in America, and Straight Razor Cure to everyone else, was one of the more successful fantasy debuts of 2011. It blended a hard-boiled detective story with the grime encrusted edge that’s become somewhat expected in the modern fantasy novel. The sequel, Tomorrow the Killing, continues the formula, succeeding once again in telling a compelling story, but failing to connect with the reader as a piece of fantasy.

polansky tomorrow the killing slice

Warden is the best er… worst… drug dealer in Low Town, which for all intents and purposes is the worst place to be in Rigus,

. . .ugly, threadbare, and catering to a class of customer straddling that narrow line between rough and outright criminal.

A former soldier and member of the secret police, Warden finds himself at an odd crossroads, a figure with a foot in two different worlds. Perhaps ironically, he’d much rather have a foot in neither, and his frequent use of his own product would suggest he’s trying to check out all together. The novel begins when General Edwin Montgomery, a true blue war hero, asks for help bringing his runaway daughter, Rhaine, home. Reluctant, but compelled for reasons he can’t articulate, Warden takes up the torch.

Rhaine’s presence in Low Town isn’t the only thing brewing as the Veterans’ Association begins challenging the crown yet again for failing to meet their obligations to the Great War’s survivors. In something of an On the Waterfront union stand off, Warden must uncover Rhaine’s whereabouts, but also the endgame for his former brothers’ in arms. Thus begins the latest mystery in Polansky’s Low Town series. Tomorrow the Killing is less a whodunit and more a what-the-hell-is-going-on-and-why (new word).

Told in the first person, Polansky’s voice is not dissimilar from the aforementioned Raymond Chandler’s, lyrical in his descriptions,

There is a corner of every man’s soul that would prefer him dead. That whispers poison in his ear in the still hours of the evening, puts spurs to his side when he stands atop a ledge.

and raw and uncut with his dialogue,

“You can’t, but that wasn’t what I meant. If you don’t go see Mazzie today I’m going to hang out out the window by your fucking ankles. That firm up your schedule?”

low-town-the-straight-razor-cureSimilar to Straight Razor Cure, and several other first person novels of late (i.e. Prince of Thorns), Polansky structures the novel around two time periods and jumps back and forth between them. The present surrounds Warden’s hunt for Rhaine, and the past details his connection to General Montgomery and his children.

That structure, because of the first person point of view, creates an odd wall between the narrator and the reader, where Warden knows the facts from the get go, but only reveals them to his reader at his leisure. This is likely more my own peevishness than a flaw in the novel, but I’m often frustrated by novels that take this approach. Were Tomorrow the Killing told as a memoir, like Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones, such a story telling device would make perfect sense. As it is, the narration feels dishonest, manipulated and overworked. I found myself wondering why it was a first person novel? It’s a question I find myself unable to answer. Far better, to me, are the tricks Mark Lawrence plays in Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns where he utilizes a plot device to withhold information, rather than an arbitrary choice by a capricious narrator.

Those same complaints could be levied against Strange Razor Cure, but I consider the first novel a greater success, largely as a result of how the second novel positions itself as a fantasy. Straight Razor Cure dealt with powerful magics, and a villain bent on wholesale destruction, Tomorrow the Killing deals in smaller stakes, the fate of Rigus’ veterans and one young girl.

It makes for a grimmer tale, one that lacks any pulled punches. It’s also bereft of any sense of wonder, reading much more like a crime novel gone slightly off the rails than a fantasy one dealing in crime. To me, Polansky’s second effort is a perfect example of the blurred lines of genre convention gone wrong. What in Tomorrow the Killing requires that it be fantasy? Why did Polansky feel the need to tell this story in a second world environment? Since I’ve read it, trust me when I say nothing. There’s no reason this story had to be told in a second world, it is not fantasy. Or at least it’s not very good fantasy.

corner tomorrow the killing polanskyI suppose the same could be said of Joe Abercrombie’s most recent novels, or even the author I most often sing the praises of, K.J. Parker. Neither employ any great use of magics or speculative elements. Parker, nearly as a rule, uses none. Yet both authors never cease to invoke in me that sense of wonder that I find so vitally important to the nature of fantasy. Polansky managed it in Straight Razor Cure, but falls woefully flat in Tomorrow the Killing. Is it strictly because it lacks enough magic? I doubt it. I suspect it lacks something else — something I can’t put my finger on.

But, it is a reasonably good book. Despite being shallow in its trappings, too easy and nearly a paint by numbers crime novel, the author’s ability to spin a yarn makes it nearly impossible to put down. Polansky’s voice, as I heralded above, and the incredible pace he sets lends Tomorrow the Killing a great deal of charm even when it failed to be interesting.

With that, I recommend it, although not with any great vigor, recognizing that my complaints are likely the result of my own overly sensitive predilections.  Certainly for fans of the Straight Razor Cure, keep reading. I’d also strongly suggest that fans of traditional urban fantasy give it a whirl; the streamlined narrative and style will likely appeal.

 

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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Comments
  • Paul (@princejvstin) December 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    I do like my speculative elements in my fantasy (the only major exception I can think of are the team of Kushner and Sherman). So I am not sure I am the right audience for Polansky, myself.

    • Justin Landon December 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      Well, there IS magic/speculative/whateveryouwanttocallit. It’s jut remotely important to the plot. Can’t say the same of the first novel.

  • Sam Sykes December 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Ah-hah. So this is what you meant on twitter.

    I’ll say this: I love Polansky. I love his writing, I love his world, I love his characters. But I think I can see what you’re saying from a Chekov’s Gun angle. If the fantasy isn’t going to be played up, why’s it gotta be there?

    I suppose I’m less harsh about this than you are, just because I can accept nearly anything so long as the writing’s good. And with Polansky, it almost always is.

    • Justin Landon December 8, 2012 at 6:00 pm

      Yes, putting everything else aside, I do love his voice. It’s fantastic and makes reading the book very enjoyable. But when it was over, I felt like that was all it had going for it. (For me)

  • BigZ7337 December 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Hm, I really want to read this as I loved the first book, but it’s apparently not available in the US. Do you have any idea when it’s being released here?

    • Justin Landon December 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      Polansky lost his US publisher. Not sure why, although they butchered his marketing here (in my personal opinion). Your best bet is to just import it from the UK.

      • BigZ7337 December 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm

        Huh, I didn’t know that, you’d think he’d release the ebook independently then in the US. I checked out the prices on the imported books and they aren’t that bad actually. I assume that the author still gets a cut of the purchase from an import?

        • Justin Landon December 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm

          Yup. Just through his UK publisher instead of his US one. I’d suggest buying through Book Depository. They do a good job with imports if I remember correctly.

  • Bryce December 8, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    I can understand your review. As someone that absolutely loved Low Town (AKA Straight Razor Cure) I can tell you that if you loved his last book, you’ll love this one for sure. But I’m a sucker for this kind of book. I read the first five pages of Low Town and knew I had a new best friend.

  • James December 8, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    I hated Low Town, but you almost had me wanting to read this one. I’m all for the utterly mundane in a secondary setting, so this one was piquing my interest up until you mentioned it was a paint by numbers crime novel. Though I thought the first book failed on most every level, it was guessing the exact path the story would take before I made it a quarter of the way through that really killed it for me. I think I’ll stick to Alex Bledsoe if I have a hankering for noir in a fantasy setting.

    Oh, and it is interesting you mention Raymond Chandler because after reading The Big Sleep, I decided it would be the last I’d read of his work. The prose is fine, mind you, but the work is so utterly sexist, homophobic, and racist that it detracts from the positive qualities the book possesses.

  • Ross December 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Dang… No release in the US? That’s a shame because I would have purchased this in Hardcover just like I did his first one. How do you think his marketing was butchered?

    • Justin Landon December 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm

      No release, yet. I don’t think they branded it well. The covers both hardcover and trade looked like literary novels, not genre. http://www.staffersbookreview.com/2012/08/when-mainstream-publishers-do-sff.html

      • Stefan (Civilian Reader) December 9, 2012 at 2:42 am

        Completely agree with Justin there – when I first heard about Low Town, it took a long time to realise it was fantasy, and not just a crime novel. US publisher did a terrible job marketing it. Hodder in UK did much better job.

        For what it’s worth, I frikkin’ LOVED this novel. And the first one. I don’t mind that the novel wasn’t FANTASY with all that entails for many people. I liked the understated, loved his writing, and just… well, loved it. It hit all the things I liked. Could it have benefited from more fantasy world-building…? Perhaps. But I didn’t find myself disappointed at all after finishing it. It was definitely one of my favourite reads this year.

  • Jared December 9, 2012 at 6:45 am

    Huzzah! Disagreement!

    I liked Tomorrow (great) much more than Straight Razor Cure (ok), possibly for all the same reasons you list. I thought SRC was a good fantasy but a lackluster mystery: the whodunnit was pretty apparent from the beginning and I wasn’t completely settled into Warden’s character (who seemed carefully calculated to be as bad as possible without alienating the reader).

    Tomorrow actually had a really solid mystery at the core, and, although I agree the magical elements are superfluous, I liked they way they were used. Magic was used to illustrate the Evils of War, and helped build the atmosphere/motivation/etc. Whereas in SRC, magic was integral to the plot, but equally meaningless in and of itself – it was a supernatural explanation for the villain’s motivation, which was… eh.

    Anyway, like you (I think), I like the series a lot, and, although it is easy to compare the two books, I think, as a whole, Polansky’s kicking some serious ass.

    (Also, the titles themselves – I really like them.)

    • Justin Landon December 9, 2012 at 8:45 am

      I also neglected to mention in my review that one of the things that worked best about WARDEN in the first book was the mystery around him. We really didn’t know who he was, and wanting to know that made everything better. In the second book, we know who he is, and that saps a great deal of excitement from the flashbacks.

      I guess I preferred the mystery in the first one, myself. Although the twist in the second one was better obscured. I’d point out that second novels typically gain depth. They reveal more of the world and the ‘meta story’ if you will. Tomorrow doesn’t do that. It gets simpler. And reveals less. It feels like an interlude, a short story extended. Adelaide, Wren, and Adolphus aren’t nearly as fleshed out. No one changes throughout the novel. It feels like a single TV episode, and not a full season.

      And stuff.

  • Jared December 9, 2012 at 9:09 am

    See, I liked the world of the second book more – it was a more narrow development: just looking at the war and it’s impact. The first book tried to establish *everything*, and, as a result, the city, world and characters all felt a little fragmented – a lot of very different things all crammed in.

    (Also, just disagree on mystery. But to each their own.)

    I wonder what happens if you read them in the reverse order? In the UK, the second book has been getting really good reviews, so presumably there are folks out there that started with it. I wonder how that changes things.

  • Melissa (My World...in words and pages) December 13, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Just read through a few fantasy reviews here. And looks like you have some great books to share. Thank you. And sorry you had a few troubles with this one, but still sounds good to me. :)

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